BACK TO THE LAND

From a working farm in Namibia to a tent on the Mongolian steppe, there are plenty of ways of experiencing a country just as the locals do. Jill Crawshaw gives some advice
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The Independent Culture
GREETINGS FROM CRETANS

When in Crete, do as the Cretans do - even down to living in their houses. The traditional stone houses that Pure Crete offers to British holidaymakers are scattered in and around the village of Magala Chorafia. They are owned by the locals, and most are named after them - the 300-year-old Andreas's House, for example, has been in that family for generations. The place has remained derelict for many years, but now much of it has been restored by the current Andreas. An ancient tombstone which he uncovered during the rebuilding is set into the walls.

The oldest house in the village, Evangelina's, was also derelict but has been renovated by local craftsmen; the bathroom was the old wine press, a bedroom the bakery. Andreas's House costs pounds 385 for one week, pounds 520 for two weeks; Evangelina's costs pounds 365 and pounds 495 respectively - both sleep four. Prices include flights and cars can be hired for about pounds 160 a week.

There are two tavernas in Magala Chorafia itself. One is usually closed. The other one in the square is where the old men gather around 6pm with their worry beads, while the women pass through with bundles of horta, the local greens, on their heads. There is a daily bus service to nearby Chania, but that's about it - apart from the stunning views over the sea, and the white Mountains rising to 7,000ft - yet the village gets pretty noisy when the locals celebrate on wedding and festival days.

Pure Crete 0181 760 0879

VIVA CAMPAGNA

Spain offers a comprehensive programme of agrotourismo - rural projects funded by national and regional governments together with the private sector. These range from economic holidays in simply restored village houses and inns, to stays in converted country mansions.

The regions offered include Andalusia and Navarro, Cantabria, Catalonia, the Asturias and the Balearic Islands. The Spanish National Tourist Office (0171 499 0901) can supply information for independent travellers.

Several British companies organise these rural packages. In conjunction with the tourist co-operative at Ronda, Spain at Heart offers farmhouses and haciendas (with modern bathrooms and kitchens, but no dishwashers or washing machines) in the most stunning of the pueblos blancos, the little white towns of Andalusia's Serrania de Ronda, including Atajate, Alpandeire, Gaucin, Cartajima and my favourite, Benalauria. Highlights are the dazzling whitewashed alleys, balconies spilling over with geraniums and bougainvillea, and a low-beamed inn. Some are little more than hamlets with provisions delivered daily by van, but all are within about 12 miles of Ronda, one of the most dramatically situated and interesting towns in Spain.

The prices are the same all year round, depending on the size of the house; a village house for up to four people costs about pounds 285 a week, while one sleeping six costs pounds 425. The company also books return flights and car hire.

Secret Spain's collection of traditional houses, small hotels and pazos or mansion houses is devoted to green Spain in the northern regions of Asturias, Cantabrica and Galicia - tiny mountain villages of the wild, lonely Picos de Europa, fishing villages of the Costa Verde, the valleys and vineyards of the Rioja wine country, or the rias, the fjords of far- western Galicia.

For escapists and energetic walkers, there is an old restored house with exposed beams and spiral staircase, but with mod cons such as washing machine and television. It's situated at Tarano in the Asturias, high up at the end of the little road winding up from the valley, and costs pounds 131-pounds 254 to rent per week, shared between up to six people.

In Galicia's Rias Altas, the Casa Jose Antonio - an old stone house with a small swimming pool, situated in the village of Cuicero de Roo - is being brought back to life by a number of teachers and students using traditional restoration methods. The house sleeps up to six, at pounds 143-pounds 321 per week. Car ferry and motorail bookings are also available.

Spain at Heart 01225 744567; Secret Spain 01449 736096

LAVVU LIFE

In northern Norway, communities of Samis or Lapps still live a nomadic existence herding reindeer. In the summer they migrate to the coast with their traditional lavvus or large tents, returning to their (double-glazed) log cabins for the long months of winter.

Inntravel arranges holidays based in Karasjok (six nights cost pounds 998), the tiny Sami capital, with a chance to visit a Sami camp by sledge or snowscooter, watch reindeer herding and dog mushing, or take part in racing on skis pulled by reindeer.

Other options include touring on skis along 10-hour gentle routes in Finnmark, where you actually stay in lavvus, eat Lapp specialities, and try your hand at ice-fishing and learning to drive snowscooters (eight nights cost pounds 1,339). All prices quoted include return flights, full or half board and excursions.

Inntravel 01653 628811.

OPENING UP SLOVENIA

This newly independent republic, bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, is about the size of Wales and has an astonishing variety of landscapes - snowcapped, sunny mountains, oak forests, vineyards and a stretch of Adriatic coastline. There are also Gothic churches and Baroque palaces which its hospitable people delight in showing to visitors.

Around 150 working farms take in guests through Slovenia Pursuits, serving traditional Slovene dishes and wine, often from their own vineyards. Several of these farms have horses to ride or are near the famous Lipizzaner riding school where a variety of equestrian courses are available.

Pri Biscu, a very old farmhouse in the Julian Alps in the village of Zasip, is a mile from Lake Bled - one of the country's highlights. It offers a choice of self-catering, bed-and-breakfast or half-board accommodation of a high standard.

Seruga, a traditional Alpine farmhouse in the Dolenjska area, is more remote, ideal for walkers, and close to several spa towns for those who may need relief from aching muscles. The farmhouse holidays cost pounds 320- pounds 350 per person for a week's b&b, pounds 340-pounds 395 half board, including flights.

Slovenia Pursuits 01763 852646

LAWRENCE OF NAMIBIA

Scattered all over Namibia's great empty landscape of dune and desert, mountain ranges and deserted coastlines, are 50 or so farms that take in visitors. They are ideal for those interested in learning first-hand about the life of working ranches in the outback. People are few and far between; the country is roughly the size of Spain, but has only 1.5m inhabitants.

Africa Exclusive offers trips to the farms, many of which have wild game on their property, and the farmers will organise riding or hiking expeditions. They will often choose to eat with their guests, discussing over a meal the hardships of wresting a living from this spectacular but harsh land - and their hopes for their newly independent country.

Farmer John Rabie's worries are not to do with Brussels-style food quotas or regulations, but more fundamentally with the problem of drought. "In Britain you can keep 20 cows on one hectare," he explains, "but here a cow needs 20 hectares for itself. Rain is more valuable than gold dust."

Yet after miles of dry, rocky wilderness, his farm is an oasis of immaculate green lawns, blazing bougainvillea, rose bushes and shady arbours - his forefathers, whose stern Boer portraits adorn the walls, eventually found water on the site. The family herd sheep, goats, 800 cattle and a herd of champion black-headed Persian Karakul sheep near the farmstead, which greet him like overgrown puppies. On morning and evening drives and walks around the farmstead, guests can expect to see zebra, baboons and some of the most beautiful of Namibia's antelope family - springbok, gemsbok or eland, kudu or klipspringer.

The Pretorius family can accommodate 15 or so people in considerable comfort at their guest farm Namatubis - it has extensive gardens and a large swimming pool. Wife Adie prepares Afrikaaner specialities - boboties stews, biltong and braai (barbecues). It is possible to ride around the homestead, but most guests stay there to visit the Etosha National Park and the Etosha Pan (an hour's drive away), a dried-up silvery lakebed roughly the size of Holland, with a huge concentration of giraffe, antelope, elephant and lion.

The guest farms costs approximately pounds 18 per person per night, pounds 26 half board, pounds 36 full board, and can be included in a self-drive holiday - roads are good and almost empty - or combined with National Park lodges, camping safari holidays and tailor-made itineraries. Apex return fares to Windhoek cost pounds 580.

Air Namibia 0181 944 6181; Africa Exclusive 01604 28979

LAND OF MEZES AND HONEY

In the Akamas Peninsula in the north-western corner of Cyprus, a wild, beautiful region of dramatic gorges, vast natural amphitheatres, thick forests and high plateaux, the patterns of farming have scarcely changed for centuries. It has been described as one of the last Homeric landscapes in the Hellenistic world. The area also shelters a wide variety of wildlife, migrating birds, green and loggerhead turtles and monk seals, and rich and rare flora, some unique to Cyprus.

To protect natural assets and the interests of local families, the European Union has helped fund the Laona Project to help restore small inns as well as traditional houses (with modern kitchens and bathrooms) for tourists to rent in ancient villages such as Terra, Kriton and the spectacularly sited Drousha, and encourage the marketing of local herbs, honey and handicrafts.

The much developed charms of Paphos are an hours' drive away; the 20- dish fish mezes of Latchi's waterside tavernas, as well as the unspoilt beaches of Polis, are rather nearer.

The Cyprus Tourist Organisation can provide free maps and information about nature trails on the Akamas Peninsular. Information about the Laona Project is available from PO Box 257, Limassol, Cyprus. Inclusive holidays staying in the Akamas villages are available from Sunvil Travel - one week costs from pounds 475, two weeks from pounds 647, staying in a village house. Prices are inclusive of return flights and car hire.

Sunvil Travel 0181 568 4499

ORANG-UTANS IN THE ORIENT

Too many "tribal villages", particularly in and around Thailand's Chiang Mai, Borneo and Indonesia, have been turned into little more than local shopping malls that exploit and ultimately destroy the culture and traditions of working communities.

The aim of Sarawak's Ulu Ai project, which was a finalist in the last Tourism for Tomorrow scheme, is to bring earning power to a remote rainforest community and at the same time encourage the protection of the last wild orang-utan in the country.

Visitors stay in a traditional guesthouse built by the local Iban tribes, travel with them in their longboats, hike in the jungle and visit their farms. The organisers stress that the lifestyle can be fairly arduous, and that the trip is intended for the truly adventurous. Local people are not paid to dress up, pose for photographs or stage "cultural" shows for tourists. To prevent the hunting and killing of the orang-utans, local guides are given rewards when these animals are spotted on tour - which makes sightings more frequent, though not guaranteed.

In Northern Thailand the Lisu Lodge project, helped by anthropologist and hill tribe expert John Davies, encourages a strictly controlled number of visitors to the region. The aim is to bring much-needed money for water, cash crops and education, but Lisu Lodge remains a working community rather than a living museum. Guests stay in simple cubicle accommodation equipped with mosquito nets. There is no air-conditioning, there are no phones, and the communal WC is shared. Meals are taken seated on the floor.

Visits to both of these projects can be booked from Magic of the Orient, combining these with other Far East tours and destinations. Three days at Ulu Ai are available from pounds 221 per person, including return travel from Kuching, all meals, accommodation and a guide. The six-day Chiang Mai and Lisu Lodge visit costs pounds 489 per person and includes return flights from Bangkok, most meals, as well as road and river transportation. Ret- urn flights to the Far East from the UK can also be arranged.

Magic of the Orient 01293 537766

THE SECRET HEART OF GREECE

A number of fortified towers, village houses, former shipowners' mansions, even an odd island parliament building have been restored by Greek government funding and converted into self- catering or guest house accommodation. They're mostly well off the beaten tourist track, in mountain villages such as Vizitsa Makrinitsa or Milies in Pilion, Vathia or Areopolis in the Mani. Standards vary; they don't compare, for example, with those in state-run accommodation in Portugal or Spain, which can be luxurious. Prices are between pounds 10 and pounds 35 per room per night, b&b.

Further information can be found in the leaflet Traditional Settlements, available from the National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London WlR ODJ (0171 734 5997). Enclose a large sae.

Sunvil Holidays offers inclusive holidays and fly drives to the traditional settlements as well as itineraries to "Hidden Greece" and lesser known holiday resorts. Specialist Filoxenia organises "escape packages" to lesser- known islands and mountain villages where (they promise) the local tavernas will not offer karaoke evenings and flambe dinners. Staying at the House of George, an apartment within a Greek house at Aghios Andreas in the south-eastern Peleponnese, holidaymakers are unlikely to meet any other tourist. The family like to practise their English, however, and invite their guests to festivities, picnics at fruit picking time and barbecues on saint's days.

Prices, including flights and accommodation, start at pounds 293 for one week, pounds 369 for two weeks, based on six people sharing a three-bedroomed house. Simple studios in a remote fish and retsina taverna near Leonidion cost pounds 274 for one week, pounds 369 for two weeks based on two people sharing.

Northern Greece fly-drives, staying in pensions in two or three historic but unspoiled villages, cost from pounds 463 and pounds 727 for two weeks. Prices include flights, b&b and car hire.

Filoxenia 01422 375999; Sunvil Travel 0181 568 4499

KEEPING IT IN DER FAMILIE

"Stay with a family" holidays in Germany, introduced in east Germany in 1991 by specialists Moswin Tours have now been extended to towns and villages in what was West Germany. Among the current destinations are Berlin, Dresden, Daun and Neumagen-Dhron. The company also organises "From Vine to Wine" farm holidays, staying with private growers in the Moselle Valley, and tailor-made wine harvesting weekends and wine festival tours, joining the locals in their celebrations.

These breaks are suitable for holidaymakers who speak or want to improve their German, since few of the families they will stay with will speak English. A seven-night family stay in Neumagen-Dhron in the Moselle Valley costs pounds 459 per person, inclusive of return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation. "From Vine to Wine" holidays lasting one week cost pounds 395 per person, also inclusive of b&b accommodation and flights.

Moswin Tours 0116 271 9922

LONG DROPS IN LADAKH

"Clients should know that as guests in Ladakh homes for part of their tour, they will share long-drop toilets, and that the only running water is the stream that runs past their house". Alastair Sawday's brochure believes in telling it like it is. This is the firm that takes holidaymakers to live with local people, and briefly share their lives. They have been working with the Ladakh Project for four years - encouraging locals to make choices about their own development, rather than adopting western models which are often ill-suited to their society.

The three-week journey includes visits to rural monasteries, trekking from Leh to the Rizong Monastery where it is possible to have meditation sessions with the monks, staying with families who are delighted to welcome visitors to their homes. The land price of the tour is pounds 1,268, flights pounds 523-pounds 575.

Other projects for '96 include a tour of Southern India, with emphasis on the development of sustainable tourism there, and a Gambian tour with birdwatching, music and craft workshops, staying in small guest houses and on a riverboat.

Alastair Sawday's Journeys 0117 929 9921

STEPPING EAST

Steppes East specialises in areas little visited by western travellers who are therefore expected to adapt themselves to the local culture, rather than vice versa. Their trips to Mongolia take in the largely unexplored far west between the border of China and Russia. Before setting off on a nomad ride, visitors are briefed in local customs - how to eat and drink, be seated and enter a ger (tent) to stay with local families.

The cost of this two-week fully inclusive holiday in August is pounds 2,500. Another two-week trip, in July, includes the annual Naadam Festival in Khoval, where the nomadic families gather for three days of wrestling, archery and racing. It costs pounds 2,500.

For 16 wealthy adventurers, Steppes East's most exclusive trip this year is to Irian Java, to meet the Dani tribe who are slowly emerging from the stone age. This fully-inclusive three-week trip in October, with expedition consultant Patti Seery, costs pounds 3,990.

Steppes East 01285 810267

DIRECTORY OF REAL HOLIDAYS

The 1996 Directory of Real Holidays lists 150 independent specialist tour operators, all fully bonded financially, who form the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito). A number of firms offer holidays on working farms, or in villages and rural communities, well away from the main tourist beat. The Directory is free from Aito, telephone 0181 607 9080. !

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